An Invocation

The poem was published in the London Review of Books on August 6 1992.

In this three-poem elegiac sequence Heaney invokes hard-line Scottish communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid; he recognises a kindred empathist for causes (with the difference, perhaps that MacDiarmid reacted much more radically than Heaney in his own Scottish nationalist way against the perceived injustices of government from Whitehall).  The pieces are written in memoriam.

Heaney seeks a gesture of recognition (Incline to me, MacDiarmid, out of Shetland) acknowledging that due regard might be hard come by from a Scot as uncompromising as the landscape around him (stone-eyed from stone-gazing), a boozer (sobered up), a man of natural  ill-temper (thrawn).

Heaney is not seeking the acknowledgement of MacDiarmid the crusty home- and hide-bound fellow (old vigilante of the chimney corner) teasing (having us on), winding folk up (setting us off) and generously bibulous (drinkers’ drinker).

It is MacDiarmid’s endorsement as a poet that he seeks, that of a confrère: wise observer from Shetland landscape to world affairs (sage of winds that flout the rock-face), with insights akin to resident seabirds hanging motionless (stalled in the sea breeze), an irrepressible pedlar of views (gatekeeper of the open gates) hidden behind the observant stare (brows of birds).

Heaney will not withdraw (take back for I do not) any hurtful comparison he might have made with arguably less talented individuals (smart remarks about your MacGonagallish propensities). He is however by this stage (middle age) prepared to upgrade (I underprized) his view of the pearls of MacDiarmid’s forthright non-conformism (your far-out, blathering genius).


Heaney paints a picture of MacDiarmid’s chosen seclusion (years in the shore-view house solitude) far from critics who, because they did not identify with his views, undervalued his diligence (more intellectual billygoat than scapegoat), his total if unbending commitment (beyond the stony limits) to his trade (writing-mad) and the way he rose to every challenge (that pride of being tested).

The reflection of MacDiarmid’s skull (big pale forehead in the window glass) created a double optical illusion (the earth’s curve on the sea’s curve to the north). Heaney recalls the moments of utter perplexity (at your wits’ end then) of a hyper-active being (always on the go) adopting a routine of strenuous physical exercise (to the beach and back) intellectual readjustment (taking heady bearings) between twin poles (the horizon and the dictionary). MacDiarmid  was a man of reactionary rigid opinion (hard-liner on the rock face of the old) ever probing (questions and answers).  Heaney throws in the question he might have liked to ask (Who is my neighbour?) for which he has his own answer embracing the many and not just the ideological few (my neighbour is all mankind).


If Heaney cannot elicit from MacDiarmid the salutation he might crave (if you won’t incline) then let there be an affectionate stand-off (endure at an embraced distance). Let Heaney remember him for what he was: small in stature (wee), perversely punching above his weight (contrary stormcock), touchstone of the changeability of verse (weather-eye of a poetry like the weather, its constant mutations (shifting force), constantly admitting disparity whatever its ultimate validity (factor factored in whether it prevails or not), product of poet, personality and moment (constantly a function of its time and place) and just now and again a mutual preoccupation (and sometimes of our own).

Unfamiliar or alien (even when outlandish) MacDiarmid ‘s messages were comprehensible to a kindred spirit (never beyond us)  as those of a committed nationalist, speaking in vernacular (in the accent, in the idiom), mysteriously Scottish (idea like a thistle in the wind).

MacDiarmid’s work, Heaney suggests, is a bequest of solid and enduring principle (catechism worth repeating always).

  • invocation: an incantation generally used to invoke a deity or here a ‘genius’;
  • Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), Scottish poet and communist, writer of lyrics reflecting on the Scottish ‘predicament’; leader of the Scottish Renaissance; hugely nationalist and anti-English akin to his Welsh counterpart poet RS Thomas:
  • Macgonagallish: William MacGonnagal (1830-1902), Scottish son of an Irish weaver, disarming cult figure amongst students and lawyers, best known for ‘The Tay bridge Disaster’ but regarded by many as a writer of mediocre poetry;
  • Shetland: (Scottish Gaelic: Sealtainn), also called the Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago off the shores of Scotland  lying north-east of mainland Britain . McDiarmid spent periods of his adult life on Whalsay Island;
  • stone-eyed: hard and expressionless;
  • thrawn: perverse; ill-tempered;
  • vigilante: (self-appointed) spokesman for or guardian of what is ‘right’;
  • chimney corner: the warmest, most comfortable personal space in the home or public bar;
  • sage: wise man;
  • flout: show disregard for, mock, scoff at;
  • smart: shades of a ‘smart Alec’, person pretending he knows everything;
  • far-out: non-conformist, unconventional, avant-garde;
  • blathering: talking long-windedly without making very much sense;
  • billygoat: male goat (nanny is the female version);
  • scapegoat: someone expedientlyblamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of everyone else;
  • wits’ end: at a loss as to what to do next; Heaney is also implying the mental decline of age;
  • on the go: constantly active;
  • hard-liner: uncompromising follower of a set of ideas or policies;
  • wee: OE word used chiefly in Scotland and Ireland;
  • contrary: counter-suggestive;
  • stormcock: a stormy petrel (bird) that can cope with extreme weather; also connotations of (‘cock’) a person who dominates others within a group;
  • weather eye: observation ofchanges or developments;
  • factor in: include as relevant (orig. mathematical);
  • function: dual intent – in mathematics relation or expression involving one or more variables; a variable basic task;
  • outlandish: dual intent sounding bizarre or unfamiliar; not native, foreign, alien;
  • catechism: summary of Christian religious principles used for religious instruction in the form of questions and answers;
  • Heaney and the Scottish poets: There is no doubting the depth of Heaney’s sense of connection to these Scottish men of letters. The first thing he asks me when we meet is whether I have any news of Edwin Morgan, the last surviving writer of that generation. Then he begins to map out the points of contact: reading with Hugh MacDiarmid in Dublin in the 1960s; first meetings with MacCaig and Crichton Smith when he attended an earlier poetry festival in St Andrews in 1973; hosting a visit from George Mackay Brown (a rare privilege, from a man who preferred not to leave Orkney). Susan Mansfield in The Scotsman Wednesday 3rd September 2014
  • There is no doubt, too, that the connection was important. He uses the word “camaraderie” more than once. There was a kinship right from the start, he says, between the speech of Scotland and Northern Ireland. He grew up with Burns recitations and Jimmy Shand records, a “sense of at-homeness with that part of the other isle”“And the Jacobite position! In my part of the world, it wasn’t the Enlightenment, it wasn’t David Hume, it was Bonnie Prince Charlie! (ibid)
  • Heaney speaking to Mansfield: “There was a sense of relationship (among the poets], a sense of access, fraternity if you like. When a poet says ‘Och’ instead of ‘Oh dear’ (here he apes a convincing Oxbridge accent], it domesticates the art in a different sort of way. Poetry is always slightly mysterious, and you wonder what is your relationship to it. So to have established writers who could be your neighbours in terms of attitude, speech and so on, that’s corroboration.” (ibid)
  • In 1977, Seamus Heaney visited Hugh MacDiarmid at his home in the Scottish borders, when the great poet and controversialist was in the final phase of life. MacDiarmid had been overlooked by the curators of English literature: compiling the Oxford Book of English Verse, Philip Larkin asked a friend if there was “any bit of MacD that’s noticeably less morally repugnant and aesthetically null than the rest?” Heaney, who has always felt at home with Scots vernacular takes a different line. “I always said that when I met MacDiarmid, I had met a great poet who said ‘Och’. I felt confirmed. You can draw a line from maybe Dundalk across England, north of which you say ‘Och’, south of which you say ‘Well, dearie me’. In that monosyllable, there’s a world view, nearly.” From a Guardian interview with James Campbell 27 May 2006.
  • MacDiarmid,” he says, “was a major European poet who said ‘och’ and smoked a pipe and sounded like your farmer cousins.” He got to know him in the 1960s when Claddagh Records was recording poets reading their own work. When “half-tight”, he recalls, he and fellow Belfast-based poets, including Michael Longley, would chant lines from MacDiarmid’s poem With The Herring Fishers.

Once, in the 1960s, MacDiarmid visited Ireland and despite being instructed to keep him away from the drink, Heaney, who felt this was no way to treat a poet of such stature, stopped the car in which they were travelling and bought him a bottle of whisky. On another occasion he visited MacDiarmid at Brownsbank, his cottage near Langholm, accompanied among others by Trevor Royle, then literature director of the Scottish Arts Council and now the Sunday Herald’s associate editor.

We drank a lot of whisky that afternoon,” says Heaney. “I always remember when we were going to get up out of our seats MacDiarmid was sitting quite spry, saying: ‘Can you manage?’” In Dublin in 1967, when MacDiarmid was 75, Heaney recalls him chasing his pregnant wife Marie round a table with who knows what in mind. “I can’t see myself chasing anybody,” Heaney says with mock mordancy. Interview for Herald Scotland 26th Oct 2009

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first two lines of (1)for example, brings together labio-dental fricative [f] a cluster of alveolar plosives[t] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang

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